I'm reading
Nina Simone
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Nina Simone
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Nina Simone
Pass it on
Pass it on
Historical Profile
1 April 2013

Nina Simone

On stage she raged, and the songs came thick and strong from her fingers.

Written by Ruby J Murray

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Faith was the local prostitute. In 1953, she asked upright Methodist Eunice Waymon over for Christmas dinner. The friends made an odd couple: Eunice was young, naive, a failing concert pianist teaching out of a storefront in the same area of Philadelphia where Faith worked the street-corners and plied her trade. But at that time, Eunice had few friends. Eunice always had few friends. She would remember Faith her whole life.

When Eunice arrived for dinner, Faith was stretched out luxuriously on the couch, the apartment full of the smell of roasting turkey. A man emerged from the kitchen to ask Faith, quietly, if the gravy was good enough. Then he disappeared again. “He’s a john,” Faith laughed. “I spank him, he cooks us Christmas dinner, then he pays me,”

Eunice saw a free soul when she looked at Faith, not a sinner. “I never envy other people’s careers or money, I envy their freedom, and I think I was more envious of [Faith] than any woman I ever knew.”

Faith used a pseudonym with the johns; a different name for her alter ego, who whipped and sucked and was paid. And the next year, when Eunice began playing in bars, she gave herself another name too: Nina Simone.

“Eunice is extremely soft and frightened to death of almost everything. She has to be handled extremely gently… Nina, Nina takes care of Eunice.”

***

Eunice Waymon was born in the small town of Tryon, North Carolina, in 1933. The sixth of eight children, her father was a jack-of-all-trades who could whistle in two tones. At night, when he came home from work, his songs floated down the street ahead of him. Her mother, Mary Kate Waymon, was a housemaid and Methodist preacher, a woman who saw God’s hand in everything. When Mary Kate followed the sound of music to find her two-and-a-half-year-old playing the piano, her feet dangling above the pedals, it was God’s hand she saw behind the music, not Eunice.

Eunice had no say in it; she would use her gift and she would become a concert pianist, the first black concert pianist, to attend the prestigious Philadelphia Curtis Institute of Music. At home, her fingers were sacred. She practised all day. But not “real” music, as her mother called the sinful music of the outside world. Classical music. Religious music.

In church, Mary Kate set Eunice up on the piano stool to play for the congregation; proof of His grace. Her feet grasped for the piano pedals. Her piano teacher Miss Mazzy started a fund in the town, which collected from both the black and white communities to pay for piano lessons and, later, her boarding and tuition at the Allen school, where the girls were raised to be ladies, and where her graduating class’s motto was: “We have launched, where shall we anchor?”

Eunice left Tryon. She launched, but would never anchor. In New York she studied at the Julliard music school in preparation for the Curtis exam. She worked like a demon, moving in a dream between her boarding house and the black and white piano keys at The Julliard School.

After 18 years of preparation, Eunice did not pass the Philadelphia Curtis Institute exam. The Curtis had other black students, so it was unclear whether her playing, her colour or her poverty was the deciding factor. But Eunice was sure it was her long, dusky hands on the keys. She had thought that music, God’s gift, raised her above segregation. “Nobody told me that no matter what I did in life the colour of my skin would always make a difference. I learned that bitter lesson from Curtis.”

Eunice couldn’t give up on the dream of classical piano. Her trust fund had run out, she was no longer small, and cute, and a sure-bet. To pay for continuing her own lessons she rented a shop-front in Philadelphia and took on students.

She began to play the bars, to supplement her paltry teaching income. Just a few here and there; her own strange mix of classical and modern. But never as Eunice Waymon.

Nina Simone was the name she chose for the woman who took to the stage. A woman who wasn’t really her; a stand-in, while the real work of being a classical musician went on.

Nina Simone was not an overnight success. She didn’t give her venues or her audiences what they wanted. On stage, she was difficult. She demanded absolute silence, like the concert pianist she still was in her heart, and left if she didn’t get it, standing up from the piano stool and walking away. Her music was “real” music: demanding.

By the time she was 24, she was leaving classical music behind her, never really meaning to, one song at a time, signing with a record label, the first in a long line of those who would take her music, her money and run.

When she met Andy Stroud, a Harlem detective sergeant, Eunice and Nina had intertwined. Eunice was already married and divorced, with a drinking problem. Nina had cut records and I Love You Porgy was being cranked out of radios across the United States. She’d played Carnegie hall just weeks earlier. Her star was on the rise.

It was quiet, hopeful Eunice, who Andy married. Eunice who gave birth to their daughter Lisa, Eunice who he bought a house in the suburbs with. Eunice who Andy beat and raped while they were engaged. Or did he? Nina says he did. Eunice wouldn’t speak of it.

It was Nina Simone whose career Andy ran. Nina Simone who he controlled when she went wild backstage, demanding and screaming. Nina Simone who he held against the wall as she abused her audience, the audience that wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t see that she wasn’t like everyone else, that she was different: a genius.

Eunice wasn’t interested in mixing in politics, she wanted to keep her music pure. But Nina, a black woman on stage, a mother and a wife, was watching as the 60s deepened. Her friends seemed to be dying everywhere. Activist Medgar Evans was shot dead on the front step of his Mississippi home the day after Kennedy spoke in favour of civil rights. When four teenage girls were killed when a bomb went off in a church in Alabama on a Sunday morning as they did their hair in the bathroom, Nina sat down at her piano and out came Mississippi Goddamn.

Over the next six years things got worse, and Nina got angrier. On stage she raged, and the songs came thick and strong from her fingers.

Andy insisted to promoters and venues that her songs weren’t political, that first and foremost, she was a musician. But Nina was playing protest marches and screaming against the silence, her strange mixture of classical training and poetry pouring out, touring Europe and Africa and coming back home to find that no matter how she packed out the auditoriums and concert halls, her records didn’t sell and the radio wouldn’t play her. Mississippi Goddamn was banned across the American South. And then, Martin Luther King Jnr was shot dead.

The next night, Nina Simone was on stage, shouting the names of the friends she’d lost, mashing the piano keys to the beating drums of her band. “If you’ve been moved at all, and you know my songs at all, for God’s sake join me! Don’t sit back there! The time is now! You know the king is dead—the king of love is dead. I ain’t ‘bout to be non-violent.”

***

The constant touring, the audiences, the noise. In 1969, Nina told The New York Post that she was exhausted. Fifteen people depended on her now for their livelihoods: her band, her road staff, her crew. It wasn’t as easy as having a holiday. If she didn’t come through, they didn’t get paid.

“Eunice is a woman who doesn’t get enough time off,” she told them. Nina Simone, on the other hand, was not human. “She’s the machine who must perform every night. The one that goes to work. The woman, is Eunice.”

Things with Andy were deteriorating. She left her wedding ring on the bedroom table and ran away to Barbados. When she got back, the house was dark, and he was gone. It was over.

For the next few years she swung in and out of America. Without Andy, her touring was falling apart, along with her finances. She owed thousands in back taxes, then hundreds of thousands, but she didn’t even have enough money to cover her hotel bills. She was on the road constantly. Inside, she began to splinter: she was the Madame for the French woman she felt herself to be, the Doctor for the PhDs she was conferred Malcolm X University in Chicago and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and told interviewers she was the Reincarnation of an Egyptian Queen.

In Nassau she caused scandals, in Barbados she had one affair with a hotel bellboy and then another with the prime minister, in Liberia she found a moment of peace dancing drunk on champagne and stayed in the country for four years trying to retrieve it, in Europe she was pissed on stage, kicked off, booed. Her daughter Lisa flew home to Andy and refused to return.

Nina was broke and furious by the end of the 1970s. She had recorded over 40 albums, but had no money to show for them. She spent the next decade going from stage to stage, but she could never stay anywhere long. In London she slurred at the audience in the Royal Albert Hall, “Talent is a burden not a joy.” Everyone had given up but Nina, she felt. The civil rights movement was becoming history, forgotten. In America, it was the worst.

In the early 1990s Nina moved to the South of France, where she battled breast cancer and shot a neighbour’s son with a pneumatic pistol. In her later years, she was surrounded by an entourage that paid homage to her brilliance, but that also seemed to close her away from the outside world. Protecting her, or controlling her. Or both. They doled out her medication, and negotiated with the Doctor, the Madame, the Egyptian Queen.

Nina, and Eunice, died in their sleep in 2003.

Their music lives on, like they knew it would. Beautiful, sad, and at times hard to listen to. Music that requires something, that sets your teeth on edge, can make you angry, can make you cry.

In the 1970s, Nina had hissed at a hostile crowd in Switzerland: “I will never be your clown. God gave me this gift—and I am a genius. I worked at my craft six to 14 hours a day, I studied and learned through practice. I am not here just to entertain you. But how can I be alive when you are so dead?”

Ruby J Murray

Ruby is an Australian writer, journalist and copywriter based in San Francisco, USA. Her 2012 novel Running Dogs is based in Indonesia and looks at the fraught relationship between Australian aid workers and Jakartan culture. Read more: rubyjmurray.com

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.